All intelligence assessments were wrong regarding the time it would take the Afghan government to collapse. It took the Taliban just 11 days to make Ashraf Ghani flee the country and leave Afghanistan without a functioning government.
The Taliban had previously acted as a shadow government in the rural parts of the country, with the main goal of disrupting the republic’s ability to govern. This approach resulted in much of the local populace losing faith in the republic, but equally was insufficient to allow the Taliban to gain the skills required to govern on a large scale. The Taliban movement knows that it needs members of the former administration to help them govern. But more importantly, they know that international recognition of their new regime will be condition upon such participation. So while the Taliban are rushing to form a government, they have difficult issues, such as that of women’s rights and the identity of the Afghanistan they wish to govern.
The issue of female participation in the new Afghanistan is an existential one for more than half of the population of the country, and closely monitored by the international community. It is also an issue on which the Taliban leadership will have to address the disparity between their words and actions.
We heard Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar, guarantee that women would be allowed to study in a Taliban-run Afghanistan. However, this month, girls attempting to enter their university in Herat were sent back home after the Taliban took over the city. Eventually they were allowed to return, but after repeated negotiations in the past few days the Taliban have drawn a hard red line on the prospect of any co-education.
We also heard Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid pledge that the Taliban would respect women’s rights and allow them to work. The Taliban appeared to be delivering on this promise when a female anchor appeared on a private Afghan channel on the day of the Taliban takeover of Kabul. But just two days after that, we saw the Taliban bar another female anchor from her office.
The Taliban leadership should include Afghan female politicians in their meetings regarding the future government of Afghanistan. Even in a system that ultimately reinforces their subordination, female politicians should be allowed to have a voice. But the far greater hope is that that they could be a part of deciding how the system itself could be reformed in more equal way.
Time is of the essence with regard to forming a new government. The Taliban have not rushed into declaring the formation of an emirate that exists exclusively for themselves. This may be a sign that they have learnt from their past experience of being global pariahs. They have stated publicly their desire to form an inclusive government. They have met with Afghan political elites, including some that currently oppose them, to consult with them regarding the future political order.
Though these statements and consultations themselves would pay some dividends, the Taliban will need to show some haste in making good on them. The current political vacuum in Afghanistan is adding to the anxiety of the population. Government institutions are paralysed due to lack of leadership and direction, and the sooner a government is formed the sooner society can start functioning again.
An inclusive government should not lead the Taliban to include the same figures that were at the core of the previous administration’s failures. The most corrupt political figures from the past should be locked out of the new government, in order to limit the amount of corruption that can entrench itself in the system again. But the Taliban would have to be measured in this regard, lest they be perceived as exercising “victors’ justice” against opponents. The best path forward is to create a third-party body to investigate corruption allegations against politicians seeking membership of the new regime.
The Taliban will also have to make a strong effort to overcome the reputational damage within Afghanistan created by the previous administration’s allegations that they are a foreign proxy. Over the past few days, protests in Jalalabad and Kabul, which saw Afghans waving the national flag of the republic, were met with harsh force by Taliban fighters. At least two people were killed and twelve were injured when Taliban fighters opened fire on those protesting the removal of the Afghan flag in Jalalabad.
By not giving their fighters clear directives regarding national symbols and protests, the Taliban risks alienating local populations and undermining its own claims of being a national movement. It will have to make informed decisions on these matters, and weigh how they might affect national sentiments. The flag of Afghanistan and other national symbols lie at the core of Afghan identity, especially for the generation that grew up after the fall of the previous Taliban regime.
The pace with which the Taliban swept through Afghanistan seems to have come as shock to them as well. The movement has much to deal with before it can settle into a governing role. Ignoring past rivalries to form an inclusive government while navigating difficult issues such as women’s rights and national symbols is going to be an arduous task. The Taliban movement will have to practice restrain against demonstrators and realise that a regime built on oppressing opposing voices is always going to be short-lived. The Taliban have executed one of the swiftest military takeovers in modern history, the question now is, can they govern?